Serial car thief’s joyride comes to screeching halt

Delhi Police has arrested Anil Chauhan who allegedly stole around 6,000 cars from across the country over the past 24 years and is the kingpin of a gang of 500 auto-lifters with an annual turnover of at least ₹60 crore. The Hindupieces together his journey from being a cab driver in the Capital to a repeat offender

September 16, 2022 02:01 am | Updated 02:01 am IST

Days of innocence: A lane in south Delhi’s Khanpur Extension where Anil Chauhan lived in a one-storey house along with his parents and three siblings. His neighbours remember him as an ambitious boy. 

Days of innocence: A lane in south Delhi’s Khanpur Extension where Anil Chauhan lived in a one-storey house along with his parents and three siblings. His neighbours remember him as an ambitious boy.  | Photo Credit: MOORTHY RV

Every week over the past few years, flight attendants on the two-hour flight from Guwahati to Delhi had been encountering two common faces: a middle-aged couple with expensive tastes. While the tall, dark and suited husband sported a Rolex watch, wore gold chains and rings, and carried a leather suitcase, the wife was dressed in formals and donned shades. A few days later, police personnel manning checkpoints on the 38-hour road journey from the Capital to Assam would see the same couple travelling in a high-end SUV. They spoke fluent English and passed off as hotshot entrepreneurs heading home after a business meeting.

Little did they know that the suave gentleman was none other than Anil Chauhan, 52, who, according to the police, has single-handedly stolen around 6,000 cars from across the country over the past 24 years and is the kingpin of a gang of 500 auto-lifters with an annual turnover of at least ₹60 crore. On September 5, Delhi Police revealed that it had finally nabbed him in the city on May 23 after being hot on his trail for several months. Geeta Devi, 48, Chauhan’s third wife, who had not accompanied him on this trip to Delhi, was questioned when the team travelled to Assam and let off, the police said.

The Hindu dug into Chauhan’s criminal records, FIRs and court orders in cases involving him, and spoke to investigators and neighbours to piece together his journey from being an ordinary cab driver in Delhi to an infamous car thief with around 300 cases, including attempt to murder, criminal conspiracy, cheating, forgery and possessing illegal arms, lodged against him in Delhi, Assam and Meghalaya.

Humble beginnings

Born in 1970 into a middle-class family, Chauhan was one of three siblings raised in a one-storey house in south Delhi’s Khanpur Extension, police sources say. His father, Deshraj Chauhan, worked as a taxi driver and earned around ₹2,000 a month. His mother was a homemaker. Chauhan studied up to Class XII at a government school in Andrews Ganj and followed in his father’s footsteps, the police say. He drove vehicles for various taxi services, earning around ₹4,000 a month. Officers say he never showed interest in pursuing studies and wanted to earn fame and wealth by hook or by crook.

His neighbours remember Chauhan as an ambitious boy who led a quiet life. “He worked as a cab driver and kept to himself. He was passionate about cars and wanted to own one himself. No one could match his knowledge of cars. Later, we learnt that he has been accused of stealing cars from several States. He never seemed like someone who would take to crime,” says Pramod, 36, a resident of the locality for the past 30 years.

Sunny, 37, another resident of the area, says the news of Chauhan’s arrest brought back memories of a boy who always sported a smile and treated neighbours as members of his own family. “Our family ran a tea shop near Chauhan’s house and his father used to visit our shop every day to chat with my father. Chauhan was a simple man like his father. I knew he always wanted to taste success and desired a lavish life, but I didn’t expect him to achieve those goals in this manner,” Mr. Sunny says.

In 1990, Chauhan married Mamata and they had two children. Five years later, she passed away and he continued to work as a driver to support his children. “He got fed up with his meagre pay and decided to make a quick buck through illicit means,” an officer says.

Taking to crime

In 1998, Chauhan joined a gym in his locality and started spending most of his time there. “He wanted to be known as a muscleman in his area,” the officer says. At the gym, he met Raj Kumar, who dabbled in crime, and they soon became good friends. “Kumar told Chauhan about Shiva, who often drove to Nepal and learnt that stolen cars fetched good prices there,” the officer says. Mr. Kumar sensed a hunger for money in Chauhan and made him his accomplice in stealing vehicles. “Kumar introduced Chauhan to Mohammad Alam, a locksmith. The trio then started stealing vehicles,” a source says.

After carrying out a number of car thefts, they were arrested by the Hauz Khas police, but released on bail after a month. “The trio became notorious in the early 2000s for stealing vehicles from posh localities. They were jailed several times but would soon come out on bail. With CCTVs not being so common then, nabbing them became a tough task,” the source says. The police say the trio sold two to three cars a day to middlemen in Delhi, who sent them to Nepal or sold their parts in scrap markets in Sotiganj in Uttar Pradesh.

“Chauhan’s expertise in stealing cars soon grew and he considered his accomplices a liability. So, after securing their contacts in the criminal world, he cut ties with them,” the source says. He had now become a “lone wolf” and learnt how to make duplicate car keys. “Fewer people meant lesser risk and more profit,” the source says.

Chauhan also started carrying an unlicensed pistol to protect himself from the police. Of the 184 cases lodged against him in Delhi, 12 are related to firing at police personnel. “He fired his gun whenever we managed to intercept him in a stolen car. Many policemen have been injured in encounters with him and several attempt to murder cases have been filed against him. He had a strong build and several personnel were required to tackle him,” the source says.

A police officer recalls an incident where he came face to face with the car-lifter. “I had received a tip-off that he was fleeing in an SUV from south Delhi. I rushed to the spot and found Chauhan’s car right in front of my vehicle. He stared straight into my eyes and brandished his pistol. I was travelling alone and I feared that he would shoot at me,” he says. In 2000, Chauhan fired at a policeman posted at the Nizamuddin police station who tried to stop him from stealing a car. In 2017, a court delivered its verdict in the case and sentenced him to five years in prison.

Expanding footprint

In 2001, Chauhan started expanding his operations to Nagaland and Assam, which were rife markets for stolen vehicles. He got in touch with Pukhvi Naga, a middleman who sold such cars in Nagaland. A year later, the Hauz Khas police arrested Chauhan in a car theft case and he was remanded in judicial custody in Tihar jail. Behind bars, he met Raju Verma and Bappi Sil, who sold stolen vehicles to clients in Assam.

On being released, Chauhan started driving the stolen vehicles all the way to Assam to hand them over to Mr. Verma. “Verma would then get in touch with Naga and send him vehicles for sale in Nagaland,” a police officer says. These vehicles were also often fitted with fake number plates and used to commit various crimes, the officer says. Later, he forged ties with Bahadur, a middleman who paid him double the cost price of the cars to sell them in Nepal. “Chauhan then drove over 1,000 km from Delhi to Nepal without any stops to hand over the vehicles to Bahadur,” the officer says. Chauhan soon built a strong network of auto-lifters and middlemen. “He impressed his accomplices with his sheer knowledge about vehicles and how to steal them from right under the nose of the police.”

In the 2000s, Chauhan used to mostly steal second-hand Maruti Suzuki 800s, but later targeted high-end SUVs and luxury sedans that fetched him ₹10 lakh to ₹12 lakh, another officer, who interrogated him, says. Another officer explains Chauhan’s modus operandi: “To steal a Maruti Suzuki 800, he would first remove the lock of its fuel tank and insert a narrow metal slab into it. He would turn the slab in a circular manner to ensure that the lock’s structure got imprinted on it. Chauhan would then make deep cuts on the marked portions of the slab to create a duplicate key.”

To save time, he made the duplicate key the night before the theft. The next day, he just had to insert the key in the car, start the engine and speed away, the police officer says.

In 2001, Chauhan bought a private bus under the Delhi Transport Corporation and two autorickshaws and gave them on rent, bringing him more income. “He could have easily sustained himself with that money but he was addicted to the world of crime,” a police source says.

Building his own gang

In 2004, Delhi Police announced a reward of ₹25,000 on his head after which he shifted base to Sonitpur in Assam, where he married Rita, a local woman who had strong political connections in the ruling Congress government. After stealing over 200 vehicles in four years, he looked to build an army of young auto-lifters who were “looking to earn a quick buck” and “willing to go to any lengths to break the law”, a source says.

The members of his gang were mostly criminals who were incarcerated with him in Tihar jail. “Every time he was sent to the prison, he would coax fellow inmates to join his gang. He taught them his style of stealing vehicles without leaving a trace,” says a senior police officer whose team has nabbed Chauhan several times. The gang members were spread across the country and they also carried unlicensed pistols. “He earned a commission on every car that was stolen,” the police officer says. “All 500 auto-lifters in the gang stole vehicles from different parts of the country and sold them to middlemen, who either sold them to clients or traded their parts for money. This way Chauhan received a cut out of all the thefts his gang members committed,” the officer adds.

The officer pegged the total number of car thefts carried out by Chauhan at 6,000. During the early days of his criminal career in 1998, Chauhan and his accomplices stole at least two to three cars a day and sold them to middlemen in the Capital. After shifting his base to Assam in 2004, he identified middlemen in the Northeast States and single-handedly stole around two to three vehicles a week and drove them to his receivers in Nepal, Assam and Meghalaya. He also continued to sell stolen vehicles to middlemen in Delhi who later sold them in cities like Meerut.

However, Chauhan remained suspicious of moles and informants among his gang members. “He asked his gang members to swear that they would never reveal his whereabouts if they were arrested. He would generally not reveal much about himself to his gang members and cut ties with them once they were arrested,” the officer says.

Module busted

In 2005, Delhi Police’s Crime Branch arrested Chauhan along with five Meerut-based accomplices and recovered 34 cars from their possession. The police said nearly 80 cases of car theft were solved with their arrest. “He had been selling most of the stolen cars in Meerut as he found buyers offering lucrative prices there,” the source says.

The police say most auto-lifters arrested nowadays reveal that they learnt the tricks of the trade from Chauhan. “There was no one to rival Chauhan in the world of auto-lifting. People feared crossing his path as he commanded obedience from his followers and had built a reputation as a strongman. However, despite having so many people at his beck and call, Chauhan chose to steal vehicles on his own. He didn’t like anyone interfering with his work,” a Sub-Inspector says.

Police sources say to gain legitimacy in the corridors of power and expand his criminal empire, Chauhan used his wife’s political connections. “Rita had good contacts with politicians and used her influence to secure Chauhan a job as a Class-I contractor with the Assam government in 2014. He used it as a cover to carry out his nefarious activities,” a source says. Apart from a ₹10-crore mansion in Guwahati, Chauhan owned several multi-storey properties across the country. “He lived an opulent life in Assam and splurged on clothes, wristwatches and furniture.”

In 2008, Chauhan married Ms. Geeta, whom he had met in the early 2000s through her brother Pawan, who worked with him as an auto-lifter in Guwahati. The police say the couple had one daughter and Ms. Geeta not only knew about her husband’s criminal activities but also helped him in thefts. However, Chauhan didn’t divorce Ms. Rita and maintained cordial ties with her and their four children. In 2009, the police arrested Pawan in Delhi.

Keeping up with the times

DCP (Central) Shweta Chauhan, whose team arrested Chauhan, says Ms. Geeta started accompanying him to Delhi so that no one could raise suspicions. “They wore expensive clothes and shoes as no one would expect such extravagance from auto-lifters,” she says.

The officer says the couple had a fixed schedule. “They always boarded the 4 p.m. flight from Guwahati. On reaching Delhi, they would head to a 1BHK flat that was taken on rent and shut themselves up. Neither of them would step out or speak to neighbours.”

A few hours later, Chauhan would step out and arrange for a stolen motorcycle to do a quick recce of posh localities and identify possible targets, the DCP says. Every five days, the couple would shift to another house in the same locality to evade suspicion.

According to the police, Chauhan started carrying a laptop with him as most cars now had a start button and he had to hack into the engine control module of vehicles and delete the default memory, a process that would take 10 minutes. The duo would then steal the car, take the Yamuna Expressway and head towards Assam or Nepal to hand over the vehicle to their associates.

“The couple would sometimes hire a driver, attach a fake number plate on the stolen vehicle and use forged documents to pass through border checkpoints. They posed as a family heading back home. They managed to steal and deliver at least two cars every month to middlemen in Nepal and Assam. They also constantly changed their SIM cards to prevent the police from tracing their calls. They mostly communicated using WhatsApp,” a police source says.

An officer says Chauhan was able to continue his stealing spree despite being jailed several times as bail is easily granted in car theft cases. “Every time he was arrested, he secured bail within a month. Auto-lifting is a non-bailable offence but it is for the courts to adjudicate the merit of each case,” he says.

In 2010, he was remanded in the custody of the Meghalaya police after he was arrested in a joint raid by Assam Police and Shillong Police from Silchar. Four of his accomplices were also arrested for allegedly tampering with the chassis and engine numbers of stolen vehicles and selling them to unsuspecting buyers in Mizoram and other States.

In April 2015, Rumi Nath, a Congress MLA from Borkhola in Assam’s Cachar district, was arrested for allegedly arranging car passes for Chauhan to enter the premises of the State Assembly and receiving a stolen BMW from him. His wife Rita was also arrested in the case after Ms. Nath in her response to the Assembly Secretariat’s notice said that she had recommended issuance of car passes to the alleged car lifter at the behest of his wife who was also a Congress worker. He remained in jail for five years before being released in 2020. He then started living away from his family at a rented house in Sonitpur in Assam.

In August 2015, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) registered a case against Chauhan under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act for allegedly possessing ill-gotten wealth and owning several benami properties across the country. The ED alleged that Chauhan had carried out transactions amounting to ₹6.6 crore through 17 bank accounts.

The Central agency then froze his accounts and seized Chauhan’s ₹10-crore bungalow in Assam and several other properties in other States. All his properties were later auctioned.

The DCP says apart from auto-lifting, Chauhan was also involved in smuggling the horns of rhinoceros from Assam to several other States and supplying arms to several gangsters. “Stealing vehicles was his bread and butter and he would never let go of it. Smuggling rhino horns and arms were a means to earn more money,” a source says.

Retired Delhi Police ACP Rajender Singh, whose team caught him twice in the past, says Chauhan considered stealing a vehicle “a challenge”. “He was an active criminal for several years in the Ambedkar Nagar area. If a particular vehicle that Chauhan had laid his eyes on was parked behind half a dozen cars, he would first break into those cars, set them aside and then steal the targeted vehicle,” Mr. Singh says.

He adds that though Chauhan has been nabbed, cracking down on his network spread across the country will be an onerous task. “It is a well-oiled racket. There were other budding auto-lifters too, but only Chauhan managed to make it big,” Mr. Singh says.

Police close in

In January this year, the Dispur police in Assam arrested Chauhan for allegedly stealing a Scorpio car from Guwahati’s Zoo Road. After he was released on bail, a 10-member team of Delhi Police’s Central district and an anti-auto theft squad were keeping track of Chauhan’s movements. The police personnel also visited his bungalow in Sonitpur to learn about his whereabouts and deployed officers outside his hideouts in Delhi. On May 23, the team received a tip-off that Chauhan was coming to the Capital to meet his gang members.

A trap was laid at Desh Bandhu Gupta Road in central Delhi and he was arrested. The police recovered five country-made pistols, five live cartridges and one stolen car from him. An official said Chauhan had come to Delhi to deliver arms in the stolen car. He has been remanded in judicial custody and incarcerated in Tihar jail. The police say his criminal record will be produced in court so that he doesn’t come out soon.

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